Three women are spearheading a maverick opposition campaign for next month’s presidential election in Belarus, transforming the country’s politics as they attempt to unseat Alexander Lukashenko, who has ruled for 25 years.
At their head is Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, a reluctant candidate who has grown increasingly confident in her challenge to Lukashenko.
Last week Tikhanovskaya delivered campaign speeches on national television and to crowds in their thousands in the capital, Minsk, and in smaller cities and towns.
Initially a stand-in for her husband, a popular blogger barred from running and jailed by the authorities, she has come into her own as a political candidate and is comfortable forming a direct connection with voters, allies say.
“Her growth has been colossal,” said Maria Kolesnikova, the head of the presidential campaign for another opposition politician, Viktor Babariko, also barred from the elections and jailed by the government, who has allied with Tikhanovskaya.
“It needs to be said that she’s an extremely brave and courageous woman. She has taken an enormous load on herself,” Kolesnikova said.
Protests in support of opposition candidates are the biggest challenge in years to Lukashenko, amid anger over his handling of the coronavirus pandemic and grievances over the economy and human rights. As well as jailing his main election rivals, he has detained hundreds of people in a crackdown on dissent.
Tikhanovskaya has also had to make sacrifices. Last week it was revealed that she had taken her children out of the country for their own safety, after she had nearly been driven out of the race by threats against her family. Her husband, Sergei Tikhanovsky, remains behind bars for taking part in a rally in May.
“Yes, I was scared at first,” she said in a televised speech. “I know what depths this government can go to in order to preserve its place. But I am no longer scared.”
At boisterous campaign rallies, Tikhanovskaya and Kolesnikova have been joined by Veronika Tsepkalo, a former Microsoft employee and campaign head for her husband, Valery Tsepkalo, who has also been turfed out of the race and fled the country with his children to Moscow last week, saying he had been warned that an order had been put out for his arrest.
In a bombshell announcement this month, the three women said they would be uniting their campaigns, connecting what are seen as complementary electorates between wealthier urban voters and opponents of Lukashenko in the countryside.